Lawmakers Agree To Outlaw Video Bingo

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. made the bill top priority.
Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. made the bill top priority. (Rob Carr - AP)
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By Jenna Johnson and Philip Rucker
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, April 10, 2008

In the waning minutes of their 2008 legislative session late Monday night, Maryland lawmakers dramatically amended, revoked the amendment and then passed emergency legislation that outlaws the hundreds of video bingo machines that have proliferated in St. Mary's and a few other counties.

The measure bans nearly all electronic gaming devices beginning July 1. A violation would be punishable by up to one year in prison and a maximum fine of $1,000.

Establishments that have had the devices for more than five years will be allowed to keep their machines until Jan. 1. Those that have had machines for more than 10 years will have until July 1, 2009, to remove the devices.

Three Chesapeake Beach restaurants that have commercially operated the machines for years plan to keep operating them until 2009, said Gerald W. Donovan, owner of Rod 'n' Reel Restaurant in Calvert County, which has more than 200 machines.

"We get to live to die another day," said Donovan, who is the mayor of Chesapeake Beach.

Nearly 350 machines operated in St. Mary's County bars, restaurants and other establishments for about six months, using a loophole in the county law that allows nonprofit organizations to use gaming events to raise money. The Maryland Attorney General's Office issued an opinion last month that clarified the law and declared that most of these machines were illegal or being used in illegal ways.

Since then, a majority of the machines have been unplugged or removed by their owners, said St. Mary's Sheriff Timothy K. Cameron (R).

"Just about everybody has them out, and they're gone," said Cameron. "We're still conducting our investigation, finalizing it."

The emergency legislation has been a top priority for Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert), who has condemned video bingo machines and similar devices for generating money for private entrepreneurs with no revenue going to the state. The Senate approved the legislation in March.

The bill hung in jeopardy Monday night after the House voted 69 to 67 to effectively exempt commercial bingo parlors such as those in Anne Arundel, St. Mary's and Calvert counties, a decision the legislators later reversed.

Del. Mary Ann Love (D), chairwoman of the Anne Arundel delegation, said she proposed the amendment because the loss of such machines would hurt small businesses that use them legally and also would cut into local government revenue.

"It's a sad day in our county and our state when we say to our small businesses we don't care if you're doing it right," Love said.

Del. Frank S. Turner (D-Howard) countered that even if some machines in Anne Arundel are regulated properly, they should not be exempt from the new law.

"If it looks like, smells like and acts like a slot machine, then it most likely is one," Turner said.

Staff writer Christy Goodman contributed to this report.

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